Collaborative Teaching & Learning Strategies

Institute of Education, University of London, School Leadership Today, Leading Learning  Vol 1.1, 2009


Chris Watkins takes a closer look at collaboration between pupils:why do they enjoy it and how does it work?

Working with friends. Working as a team. Working in groups. When we ask pupils and teachers how classroom pedagogy might be improved, this is what primary schoolchildren say. In secondary schools, meanwhile, a preference for learning with friends was voiced by 53 per cent of respondents in a 2008 MORI survey – an increase from 35 per cent in 2007 and 28 per cent in 1998. When we ask teachers about their own best experiences of learning, they regularly report times when they worked and learned with others – but by no means all of their examples come from a classroom context.

However, when we look into classrooms we find that they are often not characterised by co-operation or collaboration: for many years research on primary school classrooms has shown that pupils may be placed in groups around a table, but that does not mean they are operating in groups. And in secondary schools the 2008 survey shows that ‘working in small groups to solve a problem’ has declined in the last decade. How might we explain this disjunction between what people think is best and what we see in classrooms? Some of the issues which have been highlighted in the past include:

  • Teachers have seldom experienced classrooms being run in a collaborative fashion
  • The culture of schools does not foster collaborative work by teachers themselves
  • The dominant values in today’s schooling, especially under the influence of hyper-accountability, emphasise individualism

So is there any point trying to develop more collaborative learning in classrooms?

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Cooperative Learning.p65 – Indiana University

Safe and Responsive Schools, Indiana University (no date)


Cooperative learning has received increased attention in recent yearsdue to the movement to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictiveenvironment. Children with disabilities bring social needs, as well as academicneeds, which are not easily met in the regular classroom. The use of classroomcooperative learning peer groups with cooperative goal structures is a promisingalternative to better serve students with disabilities in the least restrictiveenvironment. In addition, it may also serve as a vehicle for improving theoverall social and academic climate for a school. As a result, it might also beconsidered to be an intervention of use in promoting appropriate behavior ofstudents in school, and in creating a positive behavioral climate in a school, thuspreventing violence.

Overview: What is Cooperative Learning?
Cooperative learning has been defined as “small groups of learnersworking together as a team to solve a problem, complete a task, or accomplish acommon goal” (Artz & Newman, 1990, p. 448). The cooperative learningmodel requires student cooperation and interdependence in its task, goal, andreward structures. The idea is that lessons are created in such a way thatstudents must cooperate in order to achieve their learning objectives.Although the basic principles of cooperative learning do not change,there are several variations of the model. The leading developers of cooperativelearning include Robert Slavin, Roger and David Johnson, and Spencer Kagan,all of whom have slightly different approaches and emphases (Metzke &Berghoff, 1999). Johnson and Johnson (1975) focus on developing a specificstructure that can be incorporated with a variety of curriculums, with anemphasis on integrating social skills with academic tasks. Kagan’s workfocuses on the use of many different structures to help facilitate active learning,team building, and group skills. Slavin’s work utilizes methods from bothJohnson and Johnson and Kagan, and has resulted in the development ofspecific cooperative learning structures.Several approaches to cooperative learning include Circles of Learning(Johnson, Johnson, Holubec & Roy, 1984), Student Teams AchievementDivisions (STAD), Jigsaw, Group Investigation, and the Structural Approach(Arends, 1997). These are all specific models teachers can use to set upcooperative learning groups and to structure lessons.

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Promoting and Managing Effective Group Work

Belfast Education & Library Board (BELB, 2009)


Research has shown that an important factor in improving pupils’ learning, motivation and behaviour at school is the opportunity for them to work successfully in groups. Given that we retain 90% of what we say and do, it would therefore seem only fitting that the promotion of collaborative learning opportunities be incorporated as a key feature of the Revised Northern Ireland Curriculum.

However, while pupils may often sit in groups in our classrooms, research also indicates that they do not always work well collaboratively.

Successful group work is not an easy classroom management option. Indeed, it demands a lot of skill on the part of teachers, many of whom may often feel reluctant to implement it either because of lack of confidence, experience and insufficient training, or because they do not wish to undermine their discipline or lose control, particularly of challenging classes or difficult pupils within a class. Nevertheless, given the current drive to raise achievement and promote more autonomous and active learning, it is important that teachers be prepared to let go and develop the confidence to try out more collaborative group work strategies.

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